Mary Green suggests ways to help the environment in 2020.
I was talking to some younger people about New Year’s resolutions, and they said they didn’t quite know what to resolve, faced with the climate and environmental challenges, which left them feeling helpless. It made me think about what we can all do, in our small local way or together with others, to protect and enhance our environment.
My particular activities are around the loss of species and biodiversity due to loss of habitat. It’s one of four related aspects of environmental decline: the others are climate change, caused by human activity, especially excess carbon in the atmosphere; pollution from a number of sources, but especially from burning fossil fuels and over-use of plastic; and depletion of natural resources so that we will eventually use them all up.
No wonder people feel overwhelmed. But all these are caused by humans and therefore we can reverse them. Acting on one usually helps with the other aspects, though sometimes they are competing.
There are things we can all do locally about loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the multitude of species we have on earth – plants, animals, birds, fungi, invertebrates and even bacteria. And us. We all exist in a complex web of relationships which have to be kept in balance for all of them to thrive – our ecosystem. It’s natural for some things to live off others, but they would not usually wipe them out, as that would be counterproductive.
All species depend on other species, and it’s collective survival that matters. Unfortunately, human activity has upset this balance and many species have declined and disappeared within a relatively short space of time.
The more species you have in your area, the healthier your environment is likely to be. It’s interesting where these areas are in Britain. As you might expect, the Scottish Highlands, where human intervention is least, come out top, and inner city London areas are the least bio-diverse.
The borders of the West Midlands and Wales do pretty well – Shropshire, Powys and Herefordshire are in the top ten. We’re not far behind. Traditional pastoral farming, as carried out here, is quite good for biodiversity.
Some species loss is caused by climate change or pollution, but most is from loss of habitat. In other words, some or all of the web of other creatures needed for its survival have gone. This means that the important thing to do to save an endangered species is not to concentrate on that endangered species itself, but on the whole habitat it lives in.
In the past the emphasis often was on individual rare creatures, by breeding them in captivity or nature reserves, which is really a last resort. Most scientists now think this is a mistake. It’s important to look after all the other more common species as well – the whole ecosystem. Iconic species like pine martens becoming rare mark a more important loss of other less noticeable species disappearing behind them.
How do we look after our habitats and keep nature’s balance? The problem is that nowhere here is wild nature any more. We humans live in it and shape it. We can’t “rewild” totally except on a small scale. There are some exciting experiments in this – see Isabella Tree’s book, Rewinding.
However, we can all restore aspects of our environment to make them nearer to the wild state. That’s what our environmental charities do: the Woodland Trust, the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and the RSPB, for example. You could join one of them.
They will help you understand the environment and you can supply practical help. They tend to look after special endangered environments like meadows, native woodland, wetlands and heathlands.
Around here you can see a managed meadow environment at Eades Meadow, ancient woodland at Piper’s Hill or wetlands at Upton Warren. Managing them means allowing a whole network of plants to develop and thrive, bringing with them fungi, insects, birds and mammals.
It should not involve disturbing soil, removing plants or introducing plants from elsewhere unless previous harm needs remedying. It may include mowing for hay and/or grazing, and some cutting of trees, at the end of the growing season. These measures replace the way, in wild nature, grazing animals would help control the vegetation.
Most of our habitat is just everywhere around us, especially in farmland which accounts for the majority of our land. (Buildings and hard surfaces actually cover quite a small percentage.) So the next thing is what farmers can do.
Farming upsets the balance of nature. Many historians date species loss from the time we started herding animals into enclosures and especially cultivating crops instead of being hunter-gatherers. The soil is the basis of our ecosystem and it needs to be full of organic matter and deep-rooted perennial plants. Farming disturbs and depletes the soil.
We can’t go back to being hunter-gatherers. But farming can disturb nature as little or as much as we decide. Traditional pastoral farming – raising animals for milk or meat – creates a relatively benign environment for native plants and their insects, birds and beasts. Modern intensive livestock raising doesn’t.
We as a country and as individuals could encourage grass-fed traditional rearing methods if we want meat and milk. This also means not using pesticides, herbicides and routine antibiotics, as these will not allow the natural habitat and soil to thrive.
This type of farming usually involves hedges: they can be left to grow tall and untidy, so they flower and fruit, adding another layer to the biodiversity. Woodland can even form part of the grazing. If streams and ponds are well managed, flood threat can be lessened too. Meat from animals fed on flower-rich meadows is higher quality too. You can see this in action here at Cooper’s Hill farm.
Arable farming – grain crops – is less benevolent. It is a major threat to our ecosystems in Britain. Ploughing the land every year, weedkilling and using pesticides are destructive of ecosystems.
It is possible to go back to earlier farming methods and grow grain organically, but it means leaving the land to recover between crops (“fallow”) or interspersing with other crops – and even then every time the land is ploughed the ecosystem is disturbed and carbon released into the atmosphere.
We aren’t going to stop arable farming. But we could ameliorate it by using fallow and between-crops, leaving wide margins around the fields with native flowering plants in, leaving the stubble longer, and letting the hedges round the fields grow.
There are farmers trying this, and Wildlife Trusts support them. I don’t know of any near here (please tell me if there is) but have seen it elsewhere.
A farmer and author, John Lewis-Stempel, has written fascinating books about restoring his Herefordshire farm in a way that enhances nature, including growing arable crops and including woodland in grazing.
Growing other vegetables like potatoes or greens, and growing fruit like apples and strawberries, can be destructive if done intensively but doesn’t have to be. It is possible to grow them in a sustainable way, and you can see this in some of our local growers. Fruitfields near Barnt Green is an example. Unfortunately our only really local vegetable supplier, Hewell Prison farm, is closing in spring.
Local small-scale vegetable growing, so long as it doesn’t use pesticides and herbicides, can be beneficial. Incredible Edibles are promoting this in Alvechurch.
All these changes to farming really need to be part of a national drive for sustainable agriculture, as there is cost involved. Mass production of cheap food is bad for the environment.
The other big thing that could be done to save our ecosystems involves local authorities and other public organisations who own and manage all our “green space.” This includes roadside verges, the big stretches of grass between pavements and roads in our villages, public parks, churchyards, cemeteries and sports grounds, canal towpaths and so on.
Here there could be a huge difference without extra cost. Just not mowing all that grass along our verges and within our villages during the growing and flowering season would allow all the ordinary local wildflowers to come back (as they do when mowing is delayed) and with them the insects and all the other life we want.
Grassy spaces in Alvechurch contain daisies, buttercups, self-heal, yarrow, dandelions, cat’s ear, sorrel, trefoil, moon-daisies, cow-parsley, clover and lots more. Many of our road verges have orchids and other endangered plants in as well as common ones, and they would come back.
Our hedges too are full of flowers for insects and berries for birds but are rarely allowed to grow to full stretch. Flailing hedges has ruined the ribbons of biodiversity along our roads and between fields.
Even in sports grounds we could only mow the actual pitch and have unmown areas around – some football clubs have done this. All vegetation can be given a winter cut to keep in control, so we are not actually leaving it truly wild.
But it does need to grow, flower and fruit and die down naturally back into the soil, so nothing is lost, and insects always have somewhere to live. Anyone involved in local councils can influence this. The Canal and Rivers Trust now do this better along our canal, and we have a wonderful wildlife corridor.
Of course, we should also avoid obvious things like cutting down trees. Most people understand this, although there are still some who think it’s OK if you replant new ones. It takes centuries for the ecosystem of a wood to develop. Never cut down a tree unless there is no alternative.
We should plant more trees, but I think it’s more important we look after the ones we’ve got first. We could allow native tree seedlings to grow, rather than bringing in new trees from outside. And we should stop using words like weeds and pests when talking about our ecosystems. Collectively, we destroy habitat all the time.
And then there are our gardens – but I’ll leave them till next month!
I wrote the poem a few years ago.
Let me tell you a little story.
The people whose job it is
To protect our countryside
Decided to get rid of the insects
Gnats and wasps and horrid flies –
People were getting bitten and stung –
And while they were at it, the spiders
And worms and slugs, nasty things
Nature should be cuter, and not hurt.
They sprayed to make sure.
Of course, the bats went too, and some birds.
Then they killed off the unattractive birds
Pigeons, Canada geese, noisy sparrows –
Chopped off their little heads, tore them apart –
To make way for something nicer.
Once all the magpies and mice and worms had gone
They brought in pretty birds, sweet furry animals
From all over the world. Most died of course
But some thrived and multiplied
Making sure the natives never came back.
It’s only a story of course, it didn’t happen
Don’t have nightmares.
They are doing this every day to plants,
Those so-called experts and conservationists,
Cutting and slashing and pulling out
The ordinary plants that live around us
The brambles, the nettles, the towering hogweed
Chopping the heads off hedges and trees
Which should host the birds and worms and insects
Why? To make a ribbon of tidy sterile grass
Or plant some seeds called “wildflowers” on the packet.